System? What System? I Don’t Need No Freakin’ System!

08 Oct

You’ve heard it again and again, and from your favorite authors.  Magic has to follow a system.  If it doesn’t it is confusing, it is cheating, it is deus ex machina!  That’s right: breaking your own rules is not allowed.  If you do, you are a bad writer.  Well, yes, breaking your own rules is a rather silly way to keep a reader’s suspension of disbelief.  Lying is dishonest.  No argument there.  If you say magic cannot bring back the dead on page 34, and the hero revives his dead love interest on page 52, it doesn’t give the reader a whole lot of confidence in the rest of what you tell them.  Since a book is just a bunch stuff you tell them, it’s not very good for them to be ignoring every word out of your mouth.

But see, that’s where all the confusion comes from: a set of rules is not a system.  A system is generative.  It takes a comparably small number of processes that are then used to generate an infinite set of products.  From Wikipedia: “A system can also be viewed as a bounded transformation process, that is, a process or collection of processes that transforms inputs into outputs. Inputs are consumed; outputs are produced. The concept of input and output here is very broad.”  Most magical “systems” are actually a set of rules or principles.  I’m re-assigning some words here but hey, a set of known terms makes a complicated discussion a lot easier.  So here are three terms I will be using and my definitions for them:

  1. System- a set of processes used to convert inputs to outputs.
  2. Principle- an overarching and generally accepted concept; a fundamental law
  3. Rule-  an arbitrary limit on possible effects
  4. Process- a series of connected events that lead to a new product.


  1. System- the water cycle
  2. Principle- the Laws of Sympathy and Contagion
  3. Rule- “magic may not bring back the dead”
  4. Process- photosynthesis

Now, I am going to make several assumptions, but they are fairly accurate, and for the purposes of this post, sufficient to support my argument.


  1. No author has ever used a system of magic.  I think this is self-evident according to the definitions above.  If anyone can explain to me the actual process of any magical act in fiction, I will dance naked on top of Everest. retract this statement.  I know I can’t give such an example.  If you do make the attempt, you must provide evidence and from canon sources produced by the creator of the system.
  2.  “Systems” in fiction are made up of a combination of rules and/or principles.
  3. Rules provide the feeling of science in the vast majority of “scientific magic systems”.
  4. The more specific the rules and principals, the more “scientific” the “system”.

Right off, we have discover that there is no such thing as a “system” of magic.  So, clearly, magic does not have to follow a system.  No magic has ever followed a system.  Nit-picking, you might say.  What does it matter?  Who cares about these abstract definitions?  Everyone should.  Definitions let you cut through the crap and find out just how exactly your favorite form of magic is constructed.  And how you should design your own form.

Now we get to the point.  Magic does not follow a system.  It follows a set of rules and principles that the author manipulates to create interest and a sound plot.  This can be tough.  Too little power means the hero cannot succeed, but too much means that the hero can succeed too easily.  It also leads to plot holes and a lack of tension.  The idea of having a “system” is to define clear and logical parameters that allow the hero to move forward, but also allow the book to develop suspense and emotional depth.  A “system” also helps the author avoid “deus ex machina”, which is a fancy phrase which means skipping out on the bill.  The reader gives the author respect and an income, and the author gives the reader an interesting and satisfying story.  The reader expects a character to succeed or fail on their own merit.  That’s what makes a story satisfying.

What magic really needs is not a system but consistency.  Consistency is satisfying.  A system could create consistency, but there are much simpler and more efficient ways of doing so.  Authors know this, and that is why they don’t really use systems, no matter how much they tell you they do.  And that is why you have to be careful about what you choose to believe.  Authors may not be intentionally lying, but damn it’s hard on you when they don’t express themselves properly.  And it makes them look bad.  They’re Authors god-dern it.  They ought to be able to get the meaning across properly or they shouldn’t be writing books.


Next time, we will talk about the goals of magic in fantasy and why magic has these goals.


Posted by on October 8, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, Writing


Tags: , , , , , ,

10 responses to “System? What System? I Don’t Need No Freakin’ System!

  1. Adamant

    July 22, 2014 at 2:44 PM

  2. skylarklanding

    February 5, 2016 at 10:46 AM

    I’m not sure I get the definition of “system” used here and how it means no author has ever made a magic system. Many “systems” of magic used in fiction take some sort of energy or other payment as input, then produce an effect, or outcome. Is there some qualifier I’m missing here?

    • atsiko

      February 5, 2016 at 12:33 PM

      This is a really old post that probably needs some revision. I believe the argument I was making (rightly or wrongly) is that most authors stop at a set of rules without bothering to develop the underlying system completely. Even video games don’t generally have true systems, because a true system is closed. In my example of the water cycle, the amount of water is fixed, and you can see each stage and how it affects the world. Video games basically have infinite mana/magicka for example, and so don’t have to account for how the converted energy returns to the system.

      So for the example of magic systems in prose fiction: most authors have a rule set. Do a thing, and another thing happens. But whether or not one could argue for the existence of a system supporting those principles/rules, I’ve never seen an author who actually bothered to design one and incorporate the effects into their story.

  3. Jex MacGregor

    August 4, 2017 at 6:32 PM

    The Rithmatist uses a chalk based system where magic users fight using different lines and drawings that they then animate. the system works on a list of things you can do as opposed to things you can’t do. this allows for a large variety of outcomes from a few simple concepts.

    WARNING SPOILERS BELOW. !!!!!!!!!!!!

    the concepts, to the best of my memory, are:
    1) ellipses drawn around the magician have certain bind points based on the intersection of the ellipse with an imaginary triangle inscribed on it.
    2) straight lines between bind point reinforce the circle but cannot be crossed by anything. lines can also be used as defensive walls.
    3) sinusoidal lines with arrow heads on one end and attached to a bind point will extend and chip away at other chalk lines
    4) creatures drawn in chalk and connected to a bind point can be controlled using a series of symbols

    • atsiko

      August 5, 2017 at 3:13 AM

      That’s another good example of a rule set. I don’t dislike rule-based magic(which I argue is different than system-based magic), and I liked the rule-set in the Rithmatist well enough, and as you say, its flexibility in usage from a few simple rules is one of the strongest points.

  4. Cady

    September 2, 2017 at 5:50 PM

    Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series contains a magic system, by your definition. Input: metal. Process: Burning. Output: Superpower. The particular superpower depends upon the metal input. Meets the criteria of point 1 on your fist list.


    • atsiko

      September 3, 2017 at 8:32 AM

      I plan to revise many of my old posts for clarity at some point, but I haven’t had time yet. If you read further on, I mention “systems” of magic that are made up of rules and principles. These are not true systems, (though they do pass my poorly-worded definition on the surface), because we don’t know how they work. You have once process, yes, eating/digesting the metals. But we don’t know how you get from that to say, telekinesis. It’s well-defined and structured, but it’s arbitrary. What about iron is telekinetic and what about tin improves your senses? And why doesn’t uranium do anything?

      When you look at the alloyed metals as opposed to the elemental metals in the system, “bendalloy” is only actually 10% cadmium Nicrosil is an alloy with chromium, true, but actually has nickel as a primart constituent. And there are obvious metals missing. Lead was a well-known metal at the same time as all the others. Electrum is made of gold, sure, but alloyed with silver, which doesn’t even appear as an elemental metal.

      Also, a true magic system would have some interplay with the rest of the world, rather than often being a sort of overlay, or artificial add-on. For example, in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, which base their magic on creatures, leyline, and nodes, we rarely see the effect of drawing power from a ley-line, but if it were truly a part of the world, that power should have had a natural purpose for which it is no longer available. Shockingly, David Eddings has the most archetypal example of this requirement, despite his magic lacking a system, where the main character calls a storm to stop a battle, and disrupts the weather all over the world.

      But many authors find this to be too much effort when their characters are throwing around megatons of magic power, and that’s why true systems are often avoided.

  5. Cady

    September 2, 2017 at 5:52 PM

    Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series contains a magic system, by your definition. Input: metal. Process: Burning. Output: Superpower. The particular superpower depends upon the metal input. Meets the criteria of point 1 on your first list.



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